Wal-Mart (WMT)’s earnings miss: significance?

the coview

Yesterday, WMT reported 2Q13 earnings results, which came in below company guidance.  WMT also revised down its expectations for the rest of the year.  That news followed a similarly disappointing result from Macy’s (M).

Media comment has interpreted these reports as signaling the domestic economic recovery is stalling out, that “pent-up demand” –catch-up buying resulting from purchases postponed during the Great Recession has finally been exhausted.  Now, the talking heads opine, the true “fragile” state of the US economy is finally being revealed.  This realization is why the stock market declined sharply yesterday.

why I think the consensus is wrong

This interpretation may turn out to be the correct one.  But it’s not the only way to look at things.  In fact, in this case, I think the media view is wrong.  Here’s why:

1.  Interest rates went up yesterday.  The 10-year Treasury reached a yield of 2.77% on Thursday; the 30-year, 3.81%.  Both are highs for the year.  In other words, the bond market isn’t seeing economic weakness.  It’s seeing strength that will eventually lead to the Fed raising interest rates.

2.  WMT’s main business is selling food and general merchandise for cheap in no-frills stores targeted at middle- and low-income households.

When Sam Walton started doing this some 40 years ago, WMT had the field to itself.  But success spawned imitators.  In particular, recently, and especially during the recession, the dollar stores have been taking market share away from WMT.  In a way, this a replay of the competition between mainline department stores and specialty retailers that emerged in the 1970s-1980s.

3.  During recessions, people change their buying patterns.  They put off buying big-ticket items.  And they trade down to cheaper alternatives for everyday necessities.  When recession ends, they normally trade back up.  For the affluent, that is already happening.  For average and lower-income Americans, as I read the results from manufacturers of staples, that hasn’t occurred yet.

4.  About 30% of WMT’s traditional customers are low-income Americans.  I read the WMT earnings report as saying that economic recovery hasn’t yet reached this part of the company’s customer base.

This, I think, is the real news in the WMT results.  I think the earnings miss is evidence in favor of the idea that high unemployment in the US is a structural phenomenon that low interest rates can’t cure.  Action by congress and the administration is needed, instead.  But suggesting this is opening a can of worms that talking heads–and the securities analysts who feed them information–would rather not touch.  Easier to say (counterfactually, in my view) that the overall economy is cooling off.

my bottom line:  as a citizen, I have a strong opinion on the structural/cyclical unemployment issue. I think WMT’s weakness is a company-specific issue, not a macroeconomic one.

As an investor, however, there’s no need to either have an opinion on this issue or to make your view a major feature of your portfolio.  Just avoid low-end general retail.

Look, instead, for niche retailers who are showing strong same store sales growth   …or avoid retail altogether.  There’s no rule that says you always have to have retail stocks in your holdings.

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